July stepped off the bus and watched it turn around at the end of the dirt road, where Mr. Markin sat hunched over, cleaning a smallmouth bass on a cypress stump in his front yard. July waved to the old man, who raised his bloody fillet knife into the air and nodded.
“You want,” Mr. Markin shouted from across the street, “you can wander on over and I’ll teach you some knife skills.” He held up a long sliver of pink meat. “Look at that—fresh from Lake Bennington. No choking bones, not a one.”
“I’ll check with Mom,” July shouted back, but Mr. Markin had already returned his attention to the fish.
July’s mother and Mamaw sat on white plastic chairs beside the trailer smoking cigarettes. July kicked a pinecone and it bounced up and lodged between two pots of dead bougainvillea. He plopped his backpack on the dirt beside his mother, who was lighting a new cigarette with the one she had just finished smoking. She took a final drag on the old butt, flicked it far into the yard, and asked if he’d been crying.
“No ma’am,” he said.
“Was it them assholes on the bus?” Mamaw asked. Two ribbons of cigarette smoke floated from her nostrils. “A fourth grader’s old enough to ride his bike to school and avoid them inbreds. Least that’s my opinion.”
“It’s too far,” his mother said. “Half the roads out here don’t even have signs.”
July picked a stray weed from his mother’s thigh. “Mr. Markin’s gonna show me how to fillet fish.”
“I’d recommend going now if you gonna go,” Mamaw said. “His liver calls it quits about sunset and he’s a nasty mean-ass drunk.”
“I don’t like you going over there when I’m not home and I’m fixing to get ready for work,” his mother said. “Maybe another night.” She opened her arms and he fell into her. “Are you gonna tell me about your day or what?”
She smelled of lime and coconuts and he breathed her in as he spoke. “I had a stomach ache so Coach let me go to the bathroom.” July had stayed on the toilet for what seemed like a very long time, swinging his legs, eyeballing the dicks and boobs scratched into the bathroom wall, and when he finally returned to gym, he was happy to find the class had moved onto jumping jacks. He fell in line but Coach caught sight of him, blew her whistle, and called him up front. He owed her a tumble on the big blue mat. Everyone watched. A nervous slick squeezed between his butt cheeks.
He kicked off his shoes and waited.
Again, Coach blew her whistle. “Bare toes are best for gripping. Let’s go, we’re burning daylight.”
One at a time, he peeled off his white cotton socks and the familiar sound of laughter quivered around him. He kept his eyes down and followed Coach’s instructions.
“So they laughed at your warts?” his mother asked.
July leaned up from her side and nodded.
“Does any of them have a pizza face or a limp or something?” Mamaw asked.
“No,” his mother said. She clenched her cigarette between her teeth and squeezed his shoulders. “We don’t make fun of people. Besides, most of what’s worth poking fun at’s the shit they can’t help.”
“Boy needs to stick up for himself,” Mamaw said. She pointed around the yard. “Look at them goddamn ant piles.” She ended her cigarette with two deep drags and asked, “Where’s the gas can?” before stomping off toward the shed behind the trailer, a ghost of smoke dragging after her.
“When people make fun of us, what does it do?” July’s mother asked.
July thought. “Makes us stronger on the inside.”
His mother nodded. Her blonde hair was swept back in a bun and wrapped in a pink ribbon that fluttered in the wind. The blue cloud on her left cheek had faded since the night he and his mother had first knocked on Mamaw’s front door less than two weeks ago, but purple and green swirls remained visible beneath her makeup. Blood stained one corner of her eye. “That’s right,” she said. “It gets us ready for what comes later.”
Mamaw returned, stepping here and there like a harried bird, dousing ants with gasoline from her aluminum red can.
Mamaw grew tired and set the can down and relaxed in the chair beside July’s mother. She lit a cigarette and picked some bits of tobacco off her tongue. She said, “I think I got a remedy for them warts,” and scurried into the trailer.
“She’s got a lot of energy today,” July said.
“I ran up to the grocery and Mr. Markin came over and got him some lunch,” July’s mother said. “She’s peppy after lunches with him.”
Mamaw returned from the trailer holding a potato that had been cut in two. “Here,” she said. “Rub these on your nasties and bury them. When you forget where you buried them, the warts’ll fall right off.”
“What do you bury?” July’s mother asked.
“The potatoes—what you mean ‘what do you bury?’” Mamaw said. “He can’t bury no warts—not yet, at least.”
July looked at his mother, who smiled and said, “I don’t know, sweetie.”
He sat on the ground, removed his sneakers and socks.
“Like heads of cauliflower coming out you.” Mamaw handed him the potato pieces.
He rubbed their starchy juices over his feet and looked up. “So now I just bury them?”
“In a shallow grave,” Mamaw said. “And then forget ‘em.”
He looked around, uncertain.
“Don’t make an ordeal out of it,” Mamaw said.
“Easy, Mom,” July’s mother said.
He scraped some dirt from the ground beside him, dropped the potatoes into the divot, and pushed dirt back over them.
“Now sit there until the sun goes down, and when you forget where they’re at, the warts will shed right off,” Mamaw said.
“Until the sun goes down?” July’s mother asked.
“That’s like two hours from now,” July said.
“Nothing worth having’s easy getting,” Mamaw said. She lit a cigarette, passed it to July’s mother, and lit one for herself.
“Maybe another day then?” July asked.
“You done started it,” Mamaw said. “What else you got to do?”
July’s mother laughed. “You don’t have to sit there, son.”
He didn’t want to wait for the sun to set, but he thought of Emily K. making gagging noises and Emily P. saying that all trailer-trashers had some type of fungus if you looked hard enough.
“I’ll sit here,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
“The boy knows what works,” Mamaw said.
July sat and pulled weeds around him while his mother and Mamaw smoked and talked and cursed. They started up about that asshole Paul and laughed at what they’d do if that asshole Paul decided to actually stop his truck and get out instead of driving by. Mamaw said she had a claw hammer by her nightstand that split skulls like watermelons. July’s mother wondered aloud how many whacks it really would take to split a watermelon.
July’s mother brushed his cheek with the back of her hand, and he wished they’d stop talking about Paul and mention his father for once. Before Paul, his father was the only person anyone wanted to talk about—but that was a long time ago. July couldn’t identify when, but at some point, the thought of his father fell away from the day-to-day doings of their lives. And when this reality occurred to him, and it most often did while he lay in bed at night, his entire body would clench as if he were falling from high up in a tree. Some nights he’d shut his bedroom door and whisper Dad into the darkness. He’d say it different ways—casually, as if he’d just woken up on a Saturday morning and was greeting his father at the breakfast table, or playfully, as if he’d just told a joke. July would focus on the way the word felt in his throat, how his tongue tapped the roof of his mouth at the beginning of the word and again at the end.
“Dad,” he’d say into the silence.
“Dad,” he’d say until he fell asleep.
“You dozing?” July’s mother asked.
He opened his eyes. Evening was about. The last of the sun trailed red behind the pines across the street. “Am I done with this?” July asked, gesturing toward his feet.
“I’m sure the circle of magic is complete.”
“She got tired.” July’s mother nodded toward the edge of the yard. “Look at this one here.”
The silhouette of a sharp snout and arched back shuffled along the dirt road.
“Armadillos make me think of roly-polies,” July’s mother said. “The bugs you’d play with at the yellow house.” The creature scraped its way out of sight. “That was a good house.”
“Maybe someone could work for you tonight?” he asked. “And you could stay home.”
“What if Paul calls again?” he asked.
“Let Mamaw take care of it.”
“She goes to sleep.”
“Then unplug the phone.”
“Then what if you need something?” he asked.
“July,” she said. “I’m the adult. Not you.”
He looked out over the yard and into the woods. “I wonder what armadillos eat?”
His mother stood. “I don’t know, but I’ve heard they carry leprosy.”
July was on the old recliner with Mamaw sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him. Her nightshirt was hiked over her head and she smoked and watched the Shopping Channel. July massaged her shoulders, straining himself into her tightened muscles. He circled his fingers around her skin-tags and avoided the flaky, purple birthmark near the middle of her spine. The spot reminded him of a rotten plum, and he was certain his fingers would pierce her skin as easily as bruised fruit. She leaned forward and groaned as he thumbed the tension knots along her lower back.
The phone rang.
“Let it ring,” Mamaw said.
“What if it’s Mom?”
“It ain’t.” Mamaw snapped her head to the right—a hollow crunch sounded from her neck. “That’s the stuff.”
He pictured his mother at the other end of the line, begging him to answer. In his mind, she was at an abandoned truck-stop—how she got there, he didn’t know—and then Paul had her, his hand over her mouth.
The phone stopped ringing.
Mamaw stretched. “My Rest-Ease is kicking in good.” She patted her neck. “Work up here before I’m done for the night.”
The man on the television was selling a samurai sword. He said it was a genuine replica, handcrafted according to ancient scrolls discovered by British archeologists. July was only half listening, hoping the phone would ring.
“May I call Mom at work?” he asked.
“That’s not allowed.”
“May I be finished then?”
“Just five more minutes,” she replied.
Sweat darkened the crotch of his shorts and soaked his shirt collar. A bead of it dripped from his nose and landed on Mamaw’s back and slid down behind the elastic waistband of her blue pajama bottoms. She pointed to the sword on the television. “Your Papaw was a goddamn sharp-knife connoisseur. He’d a loved that one there.”
“He collected them?”
“Oh yeah. Good thing, too. After he died, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, so I sold the whole lot of them to a foreigner at the flea-market.”
She lit a cigarette. Smoke curled into July’s nose.
“So, you don’t still have any?” he asked.
She pulled her shirt down. “I know what your Papaw would’ve done to the asshole that keeps calling our phone.” She leaned on July’s shoulder and lifted herself up. Ash broke from her cigarette and landed in his lap. “He’d have whispered a sword through his neck so clean, the son of a bitch wouldn’t have known his head was chopped off ‘til his very next sneeze.”
July thought of the way his mother had braced her body before the impact of Paul’s fist. The stifled chirp she had made as the punch landed. Blood on the white kitchen cabinets. Paul fleeing in his loud black truck. July was at the dining table when it happened, stirring ketchup with a fish-stick. Her cheek was red and swollen, nose bloodied.
The sound of rushing water filled his ears. “Should I call the police?”
Blood caught strands of her blonde hair. He brushed them behind her ear.
“Oh, son,” she said, and that’s when he smelled it.
Shit ran watery and fast down his legs and between his toes.
He pulled back from her. “I’m sorry.”
His mother laughed and pointed. “You left some tracks.”
A trail of brown, half-formed footprints followed him from the chair where he’d been sitting. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
His mother leaned against him.
“Look at us,” she said. “A couple of true-blue messes.”
There was blood on her teeth.
“Stop scratching at them,” Mamaw snapped.
July had dug a hole straight through the warts and into the meat of his left foot. He plucked a tissue from the box on the end table and wiped away the blood before it could stain the couch, but it kept bleeding, so he pressed the tissue into the hole and felt a sting rise up his leg.
“A good man is what your mother needs,” Mamaw said as she lowered herself across the couch cushions. “Hell,” she said, “find a woman. I don’t care. Someone to dial 911 in case a hunk of meat shoots down the wrong pipe.” She covered her legs with a quilt that read “World’s Best Granny,” lit a cigarette and said, “Let me see them warts.”
July scooted over and showed her his bleeding foot.
“You should’ve buried the potatoes off somewhere else. You’ll never forget ‘em in the yard like you did.” She coughed a burst of smoke in his face. He coughed. They both coughed.
The phone rang. She caught his wrist.
“Don’t you move,” she said.
“You should cuss him out.”
She smacked her lips. “Piss on him. He wants to waste his time, let him.”
The phone went silent.
“Toss this in my mug over there,” she said and handed him her still smoking cigarette.
Awkwardly, he pinched it between his fingers and carried it to the table and dropped it into the mug, but he didn’t hear it hiss in the cold coffee because Mamaw was already snoring.
Mamaw remained unfazed in her sleep as the phone rang and rang until July answered it and said hello—but he was greeted only by a dial-tone. Still, he listened, his body buzzing from the anticipation that had built as he reached out to lift the receiver. The dial-tone ceased and was replaced by a loud beep so he slammed the phone down hard onto its carriage. His upper lip was sweaty, his hands were shaking, and soon his stomach cramped and he was on the floor in pain. According to the school nurse, he had a nervous stomach. She said her husband had had one, God rest his soul. July had been to see her so many times that she eventually said he could access her office anytime, without permission, if he felt an attack coming on. July knew she felt sorry for him, but he felt sorry for her too—she smelled like weird powder and had a scar on her neck. He stretched his body across Mamaw’s carpet, and all its cigarette burns and felt the pain subside, so he pulled himself up and leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the window pane. Down the dirt road, Mr. Markin had made a fire in his front yard, and he was sitting on a chair beside it. July waved, but Mr. Markin didn’t notice.
The phone rang again and July answered it. There was a hushed emptiness on the line—a not-quite-silence that made him feel certain that someone was there. He heard a rustling, or a murmur—maybe a whisper. He pressed the phone against his ear to hear even the slightest sound. Static flared and he jumped. The noise brought tears to his eyes and he wanted to slam the phone down like before but the static faded and real, identifiable sounds emerged. Footsteps on gravel. A door creaking shut. An engine starting. And then a voice. A man’s voice. Muffled, but familiar—and a possibility occurred to July, one that he hadn’t before considered. He smiled and moved his mouth close to the phone.
Movement. Coughing. Breathing.
“July?” said the voice.
July leaned up on his tiptoes and fell forward against the couch. “Yeah, Dad, it’s me.”
“This is Paul, son. Is your mom there?”
With a wet smack, a frog leapt onto the window above the kitchen sink. Its white belly was almost translucent against the glass. Its throat beat with vigor. July sat down on the floor. His heart pulsed in his fingertips, his earlobes, his cheeks. He tried to scrape together a harsh reply to Paul’s question, but a blanket, wet and heavy, had been stretched across his brain.
“She’s at work,” was all he could think to say.
The line cut out.
July made his way down the dirt road and through the ditch bordering Mr. Markin’s land. Mud wormed between his toes and tall weeds tickled his thighs like spider legs in the dark. Woodsmoke filled the air.
He had tried to call his mother to warn her about the possibility of Paul showing up, but his mother’s boss Carl had answered. “Your Mom’s got a twelve-top, an eight-top, and a booth full of grab-asses, son. She ain’t coming to the phone right now.”
“Tell her it’s important. Tell her it’s about Paul.”
Carl sighed and said, “Nobody’s ever described nothing having to do with Paul as important.” And then he’d asked, “Ain’t that the truth?” and hung up.
July approached the bonfire and Mr. Markin stood wobbly on his feet to brush the fish scales off the cypress stump. “Set yourself right there, son. The fish blood’s done dried.”
“Thank you,” July said. He sat and felt the fish blood had not, in fact, dried—not even a little—and he squirmed as it absorbed into his shorts.
Mr. Markin fell back into the chair, tossed an empty beer can into the fire, and plucked another one from the case beside him. Half-eaten fish rested on a paper plate at his feet, and chunks of it were nestled in his beard. He grinned wide enough to display the wad of Red Man tucked between his bottom lip and teeth.
July smiled too, though he didn’t mean to and didn’t know why.
“Your Mamaw sleeping?”
Mr. Markin laughed and popped the tab on his beer—white foam oozed over his hairy knuckles. “I bet she is.”
“I did something bad tonight,” July said.
“Glad to hear it. Boys that shy from mischief grow up to lead questionable lives.”
“I told Paul that Mom was at work and I shouldn’t have.”
Mr. Markin drank from his beer for a long time and said, “That’s it?”
“He knows where she works—what’s the big deal?”
July felt a sting and smacked a mosquito on his knee. The flattened bug, haloed by blood, made a small red flower on the palm of his hand. “He didn’t know she was working right this second.”
“Well,” Mr. Markin said, “your Mama can take care of herself. You need to stop thinking otherwise. It’s disrespectful.”
“I don’t want him to hit her.”
Mr. Markin tossed the beer can into the fire and leaned forward in his chair. “You must think she’s awfully stupid if she’s gonna let that happen again.”
“I don’t think she’s stupid.”
“You smarter than her?”
“No sir,” July said.
“You’re always second-guessing her like you’re so smart.”
“I just get scared.”
The night and the fire took turns across Mr. Markin’s face. He spat a loogie into the fire. “She’d do you right to bust your ass and show how smart you really are.”
July’s throat burned but he didn’t cry. The old man tilted his head toward the stars and fixed his jaw in a slack position. He slept like this while July stared into the fire and picked his warts. Every now and then Mr. Markin would jerk as though he were falling. July glared at him and the flies gnawing from his beard.
Mamaw was right—he really was a nasty mean-ass drunk.
Mamaw was right about something else, too—he was never going to forget those potatoes if they were buried in a half-hearted grave in the front yard. He made his way back through the ditch, across the dirt road, and retrieved the halves from the ground. Then he found his bike in Mamaw’s shed and pedaled for Lake Bennington. He’d never ridden to the lake and he didn’t know how long it should take. In his mother’s car, they passed it after fifteen minutes or so—on a bike, he figured it might be twenty-five, thirty minutes? He didn’t know, but the farther he rode the tighter his chest clenched with panic. His arms tingled. His vision blurred. He stopped pedaling. Fog stretched like an awakening ghost from the saw palm thickets and pine trees that clustered along both sides of the road. Spanish moss dangled from branches like hair from a corpse. July couldn’t breathe—at least not all the way; he tried, inhaling deep, but his lungs just wouldn’t fill. He thought of his mother, who promised his breath would always return, always return, always return. He steadied himself and wondered why he panicked in the first place—Mr. Markin was asleep, Mamaw was snoring, and even that frog, with its tiny, beating throat, was probably still perched on the window. It didn’t matter what he did or where he went, nothing changed and it bothered no one.
Headlights flared around the bend and July barreled into the woods. Vines tangled around his ankles and he hit the ground beside his bike. A black truck raced by, its engine growling.
“Shit,” he said and sat up. He peered around the clearing. Holes pocked the dirt, little snout-shaped burrows where armadillos had searched for grubs and worms and other things smaller than itself to eat.
His foot stung where he’d dug into the warts a couple hours before; now the hole was packed with dirt. He scraped it out, revealing fresh blood, and felt a fleck of wart that had separated from his foot, so he peeled it, carefully, back and away. More blood pooled and pain ran through him and made him feel as though he had to pee. But in another way, it felt good, like he was forcing something terrible to leave his body. Warts tracked the tops of both his feet and along the knuckles of each toe and he understood how gross they looked to others—he knew this by the faces of those in his class and the pity in his mother’s eyes. He scraped and peeled, scraped and peeled. When his fingertips became slippery with blood and he could no longer get a good grip, he leaned against the dirt, which was cool against his back. He rolled onto his side and felt the potatoes in his pocket and remembered why he’d ridden out in the first place.
He removed them from his pocket and considered their weight in his hand. He didn’t believe in magic, wives-tales, or Mamaw’s old stories, but the potatoes, with their pale flesh peeking through the dirt that stained them, looked like ancient mystical eggs in the moonlight. Between his legs, he started digging and imagining his feet free of warts, his toes unblemished, not gross, wiggling freely in the air. He imagined Paul leaving town and never returning; his mother finding a job without the grab-asses touching her; his mother handing him a key to their new home, one where he didn’t have to sleep on the floor; the kids at school not making fun of him; a friend to eat lunch with; no more stomach aches; no more being scared. He imagined his father pulling his old truck into the driveway of their new home and coming inside, seeing July’s new room, and apologizing for not saying goodbye before he left.
July wondered what his father was doing now. The last he’d heard, his father worked with a bridge crew along the Gulf of Mexico. He pictured the two of them walking along a beach at night, a bridge his father helped build in the distance, lit like a fantastical gate to another world. His father flailed his arms, passionately describing the role he played in constructing something so monumental. Or so July assumed—he couldn’t hear his father’s voice over the gulf waters hoarsely churning against the shore. His father’s strides lengthened; his pace quickened. July tried to stay with him, but he couldn’t keep up. He reached out to grab his father, to ask him to slow down, but when his father turned, July recoiled—where there used to be a face, one that many said July’s own face closely resembled, now there was nothing—a vast reach of darkness no different than the starless sky that slouched over everything and everyone.
July stopped digging.
“Dad,” he said.
He dropped the potatoes into the hole.
“Dad,” he said.
“Dad,” he said and filled the hole with dirt.
Chase Holland’s work has appeared in Burrow Press Review, NANO Fiction and Noctua Review. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. He lives with his wife and two sons in Tampa, Florida, where he is at work on his first novel.